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EDITORIAL

Consolidate the police

New details on the failures of law enforcement’s response to the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, underscore a central problem in American policing: There are far too many police departments in the United States.

Police gather outside Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas on Tuesday, May 24, 2022.Christopher Lee/NYT

In a new report on the mass shooting that left 19 kids and two teachers dead in an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, law-enforcement officers who were on the scene that tragic day in May summed up the police response to investigators in one word: Chaos. It’s that unfortunate truth that led to the police’s failure to confront the shooter for 73 minutes and, as a result, compounded the grief for families of the victims. It’s a nagging thought for anyone, but especially the parents: How many lives could have been saved had the police not waited more than an hour to breach the classroom that the shooter was in?

While the investigation, which was commissioned by the Texas House of Representatives, was unable to answer that question, it found a series of “systemic failures and egregious poor decision making” on the part of law enforcement, which very well may have contributed to making the massacre the deadliest school shooting in Texas’s history.

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The cause of the chaos can be boiled down to one thing: No officer appeared to assume command. That would be chaotic during any emergency response, but it was especially so in this one because it wasn’t just one or two police units on the scene. According to the report, 376 officers responded to the shooting — representing nearly two dozen different law-enforcement agencies — and not a single one of them was getting any clear information on what was unfolding or directions on what to do.

While many lessons can be drawn from the police response in Uvalde, a simple one is this: The American practice of dividing responsibility for law enforcement among a staggering number of separate police departments comes at a real cost to public safety. There are law enforcement agencies run by the federal government, states, counties, big cities, and small towns. Even colleges have them — some of those police departments are private — and, as is the case of Uvalde, small school districts do too. Some agencies are made up of a single officer; others have thousands. In total, there are about 18,000 different law-enforcement agencies scattered across the country. (Indeed, there are so many police departments that the federal government does not have a precise number of how many exist in a given year.)

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The problem is that these agencies often have different rules, jurisdictions, and command centers, and when disaster strikes, establishing an efficient, coordinated response among them has proved to be difficult. The shooting in Uvalde was just one example. The response to the Boston Marathon bombing was another.

In 2013, thousands of officers from a host of different departments across New England and New York descended upon Watertown to help capture the bombing suspects. A significant number of them were self-deployed. An after action report detailed the confusion among the officers over who had authority in the field. Commanders focused on directing their respective departments, but there was little unification across the many agencies. The report also found that “many personnel did not recognize command authority from anyone outside their own agency.”

Police officers search homes for the Boston Marathon bombing suspects in Watertown, Massachusetts April 19, 2013.REUTERS

Like Uvalde, the result was a chaotic and dangerous scene. Officers mistook one another for suspects. Others thought the suspect was shooting at them when what they heard was, in fact, officer fire. That prompted a round of “contagious fire,” where the sound of gunshots prompted more officers to fire their weapons in what the report concluded was a “dangerous crossfire situation.” The fact that police did not kill one of their own was a matter of luck.

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None of this is an argument for reducing the number of police officers in the United States — that’s an entirely different debate, and a heated one at that. But one thing that people ought to be able to agree on, whether they are advocates for or opponents of more policing, is that the number of police departments ought to be reduced. First and foremost, doing so would bolster public safety, especially in emergencies when it’s crucial that officers share the same training and standards. And it’s also a matter of increasing accountability. The makeup of watchdogs differs from department to department, and having more uniform oversight protocols with high standards would allow fewer agencies to fly under the radar. In Massachusetts, recent scandals at the Stoughton police department are a reminder that small-town departments often have, well, small-town oversight.

That’s ultimately why lawmakers at both the state and federal level should move to consolidate many of the 18,000 or so law-enforcement agencies. As it stands, the current network of police departments is inefficient. Oftentimes, it’s wasteful. And when a major crisis hits, the patchwork of different forces can lead to miscommunication, confusion, and chaos. At its worst, that may cost people their lives. As the investigators in Uvalde wrote, “It is plausible that some victims could have survived if they had not had to wait 73 additional minutes for rescue.”

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The fact that thousands of different police departments now patrol streets, investigate crimes, and respond to shootings in the United States isn’t the result of any plan — and that’s exactly the problem. Unless states and the federal government reduce the number of police departments and consolidate them into more sensibly sized forces, then it’s not a question of if there will be a repeat of that kind of jumbled police response that we saw in Uvalde — but when.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.